Team of the Week: Notre Dame
To outsiders, Notre Dame looked like a team just made up of Cal Petersen and Anders Bjork. The Fighting Irish last year were a team that excelled in scoring and goaltending and pushed its way through a difficult Massachusetts-Lowell team to reach the Frozen Four. But after Notre Dame dropped its opening game to eventual national champion Denver, it seemed Notre Dame’s run was over.
But only to outsiders.
Notre Dame knew it had scoring and depth, and other coaches in the Big Ten knew it too — that’s why they picked the Fighting Irish to finish second in the conference. But the Fighting Irish started the season sluggishly, clocking a 5-3-1 record in October. They also suffered a tough loss in a 6-4 decision to Sacred Heart. But part of that came from injuries, which plagued the Fighting Irish for the opening six weeks.
But the Fighting Irish are far from finished. They’ve slowly been getting healthier and have quietly pulled together a nine-game winning streak by defeating Nebraska-Omaha, Ohio State, RPI and Penn State. Notre Dame put any doubts to rest by sweeping a stacked Minnesota team last weekend to earn CHN’s Team of the Week honors.
The Fighting Irish had also been dominating their new conference, but hadn’t beaten a powerhouse team until this past weekend. Notre Dame sits atop the Big Ten with a perfect 6-0-0 record and has extended its lead over Minnesota to seven points — slightly over two games in Big Ten play.
“Playing them was a good benchmark for us, it was like playing Denver,” ND coach Jeff Jackson said. “We’re certainly happy with the results but I think that there was a lot of areas in our game that were exposed a little bit. I think that for me it’s a matter of being a little bit better coming out of zone with more speed and trying to generate chances, I call long-transition chances.”
While goaltending was arguably the biggest concern for Notre Dame, Cale Morris has proved his worth after serving as Petersen’s understudy. He was key in Notre Dame’s Friday night win, stopping 44 pucks in the shutout win over the Gophers. On Saturday he made 40 stops and allowed just two goals. The offense on Saturday broke out too, with Cal Burke scoring twice and Jake Evans adding two helpers.
The 1-0 win Friday was the third such score in the last few weeks, but the 5-2 win Saturday signaled a meshing together of all components of the team's game. That said, the defense continues to lead the way.
While offensive contributions are helpful, Notre Dame’s recent success — especially that over Minnesota — has come from their own zone. The Fighting Irish allow just 2.19 goals per game. Morris’ .952 save percentage leads the nation.
“Part of the reason we’ve been winning is because we have been getting a better performance out of our defensive core,” Jackson said.
While Notre Dame was picked to finish second in the Big Ten, the team is on pace to take the conference. The Irish roster has a strong balance in all of its classes now, as well as a good mix of blue chippers and role players. That is a solid recipe for the type of success that goes deep into the NCAAs.
Even though the Fighting Irish are winning, Jackson knows there’s still room to improve — especially in a conference where high-flying offenses rule.
“They exposed us in some areas with their skill and speed so we just have to keep on getting better,” Jackson said.
“Right now for me it’s just about just trying to continue to work on possessing the puck and working on our defensive sticks and things that are going to allow us to possess the puck or create turnovers to possess the puck.”